* U.S. union wants to avoid divisive formal election process
* Critics: Recognizing a union without an election is
* UAW success at VW in U.S. could help at other
foreign-owned plants in South
* VW global labor chief: Talks to set up works council with
UAW will continue
By Ben Klayman
DETROIT, Sept 12 The United Auto Workers would
like Volkswagen AG to voluntarily recognize the U.S.
union as the best choice to represent the German automaker's
workers at its Tennessee plant, the union's president said on
Doing so would eliminate the need for a more formal and
divisive vote, UAW President Bob King said, and allow the union
and VW to represent the workers using an "innovative model" that
would be a milestone in the union's long-running effort to
organize foreign-owned auto plants.
Critics, however, argue that such an approach would be
King has been trying to organize foreign-owned, U.S.-based
auto plants to bolster a union membership that has shrunk since
its peak in the late 1970s.
Historically, the U.S. South has been hostile to unions, and
scoring a win at VW would mark the UAW's first success at a
major foreign automaker's plant in that region. That could alter
the landscape in the U.S. auto sector, opening door to similar
efforts at plants owned by Germany's Mercedes in Alabama and BMW
in South Carolina, and possibly those owned by
Japanese and South Korean automakers, analysts have said.
GERMAN LABOR MODEL
The question in Tennessee would be whether the UAW seeks a
formal vote for recognition or asks VW officials simply to
recognize the union as the official bargaining unit for the
workers under a new German-style representation model called a
"An election process is more divisive," King said in a
telephone interview, referring to outside nonunion groups that
would likely pit workers against each other. "I don't think
that's in Volkswagen's best interests. I don't think that's in
the best interests of Tennessee.
"If they want to ... recognize us based on majority, I think
that is the quickest, most effective way," he added, noting that
the UAW has taken a similar approach with hundreds of other
companies in the United States. King declined to give a timeline
on how long the process will take.
VW executives said last week in a letter to employees at the
Chattanooga plant they were in talks with the UAW about the
union's bid to represent workers.
King said the union has received cards signed by a majority
of the plant's 2,500 workers saying they want UAW
representation. He declined to give the exact percentage, saying
the number was still rising.
In VW's home country of Germany, the IG Metall union that
represents workers has seats on the company's board. IG Metall
would like to see the UAW organize the Chattanooga plant and
bring it in line with Volkswagen's other major factories around
the world, all of which have union representation.
King declined to say what preference IG Metall or VW
officials have voiced to him on the question of a vote, but said
the union was anxious to work with the German automaker to make
the plant more productive.
Avoiding lengthy and potentially bitter elections has been
an aim of U.S. labor for years, said Arthur Schwartz, a
consultant and former General Motors Co labor negotiator.
The Employee Free Choice Act, which has never had enough support
to pass in U.S. Congress, would have allowed a union to be
automatically recognized without an election if it were able to
persuade 50 percent of the workforce plus one person to sign
cards supporting the union.
Opponents of the act, including many Republicans, say that
approach subverts the democratic process. They argue the union
can pressure workers to sign the cards, whereas as elections
with confidential ballots allow people to vote their true
"Team members (at the plant) have said to me, 'Well, I had
the understanding that I would have a secret ballot, the
democratic process, and now it looks like it's being taken away
from me,'" said Don Jackson, an industry consultant who was VW's
U.S. manufacturing chief until last June.
UAW officials have said workers have already expressed their
desire by signing the cards.
The head of VW's global works council, Bernd Osterloh, told
Reuters the current debate was "absolutely unacceptable" and
there were "clear signs" the UAW has the support of many
employees in Tennessee to discuss some sort of representation.
"VW has only acquired its global strength because workers
are tied into corporate decisions," he said in an email. "We
will continue the talks in the U.S. to set up a German-style
works council with the UAW and all politicians that are open to
In Germany, IG Metall negotiates worker compensation every
few years, while the works council handles working conditions in
the plants. The UAW would play the role of the German union in
the United States, a model King thinks can be transferred to
other foreign-owned plants, including those of the Japanese and
South Korean automakers.
VW board member Horst Neumann, who is also an IG Metall
member who has voiced support for the UAW, told Automotive News
this week that company lawyers were working on a proposal for a
works council-like model for the U.S. plant and a proposal for
the workers could be ready for discussion as soon as
MERCEDES, NISSAN NEXT?
VW executives in the United States have said the workers
will have the final decision on whether to choose the UAW, but
they have repeatedly focused on a formal voting process.
Jackson, the former U.S. manufacturing chief at VW, expects the
automaker would only accept the union after a confidential
ballot vote by the Tennessee plant's workers.
Tennessee officials are more hostile to the union. U.S.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, told Reuters on
Tuesday that bringing the UAW into the VW plant would be "a
job-destroying idea" and termed laughable the union's claims it
has become more flexible and easier to work with than in the
Earlier on Thursday, a Tennessee state legislator said he is
trying to prove that the state's governor promised VW additional
incentives if it kept the UAW out of the two-year-old
While King declined to discuss efforts at other plants, the
UAW has been collecting signature cards at the Mercedes plant
near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and working to win over Nissan
workers at the Japanese automaker's plants in Tennessee
"We have a number of campaigns going on," he said. "We've
got some traction, momentum at Mercedes and obviously a lot
going on at Nissan. Which one will be next? I don't know for
sure. A number of factors will determine that."
However, the production chief for Mercedes, which is owned
by Germany's Daimler AG, said at the Frankfurt auto
show on Tuesday that the German company had no need for a
German-style works council at its plant near Tuscaloosa,